Main Engine Cut Off

The Mystery of NROL-71

Dr. Marco Langbroek, with an intriguing post about the upcoming NROL-71 payload:

So, if NROL-71 is a new electro-optical reconnaissance satellite in the KH-11 series, it represents a serious deviation from past KH-11 missions. The apparent abandoning of a sun-synchronous polar orbit, is surprising, as such orbits are almost synonymous with Earth Reconnaissance. The “why” of a 74-degree orbit is mystifying too. If it does go into a 74-degree inclined orbit, it doesn't seem to be a “Multi-Sun-Synchonous-Orbit”.

Alternatives have been proposed. Ted Molczan has for example suggested that, perhaps, NROL-71 could be a reincarnation of the Misty stealth satellites, warning that the unexpected orbital inclination for NROL-71 might not be the only surprise.

Strap in for a fun ride, because Misty is a hell of a good story.

OneWeb Downsizes Initial Deployment

Caleb Henry for SpaceNews:

Greg Wyler, OneWeb’s founder, said the company will need only 600 satellites or so instead of 900 after ground tests of the first satellites demonstrated better than expected performance.

And later on in the article:

Wyler said 600 is the minimum needed for global coverage. Beyond that, OneWeb is deciding whether it will add 300 first-generation satellites or shift to a second-generation constellation designed to layer on more capacity.

Sounds like they are delaying 300 satellites, not specifically downsizing the entire constellation. If they’ve determined they don’t need 900 satellites worth of initial capacity, then that’s fine. But if they made the decision for some other reason like funding or schedule—which I have to believe is the case—then that’s not such a good sign, specifically for a company that is going through CEOs at a rate like they have been over the last few years.

SpaceShipTwo Reaches Space

I find Jonathan McDowell’s paper convincing, and I’ve always loved the X-15, so in the spirit of consistency, yes, SpaceShipTwo reached space today on its flight to 82.7 kilometers.

It was, unquestionably, a huge day for Virgin Galactic, a company that I’m not the biggest fan of, to say the least. I think their SpaceShipTwo architecture is a dead-end beyond flights like this, I find their engine choice questionable at best, and I have many issues with their PR.

But, damn, it’s really hard to talk shit on this view.

The one thing I’m left wondering after today is how the vehicle will do with a full load—passengers, seats, and all. It seems like they have some margin left on the engine burn duration, so with all that considered, is the 80 kilometer range their realistic target for customer flights?

Amateur Observers Searching for Chang’e 4 Find Nothing

Scott Tilley with a really interesting and very detailed post about the search for Chang’e 4:

Xinhua reported today that Chang’e 4 entered lunar orbit at about 08:39 UTC on Dec 12th.  No amateur observers reported observing the event; however, three highly competent amateur observers in Europe shared observations hours after the lunar orbit insertion burn was executed. No evidence of a signal from Chang’e 4 has been noted since my loss of signal earlier on Dec 12th.  I later conducted similar observations and searched around the Moon for the signal and found nothing we can relate to Chang’e 4. Only signals from Chang’e 5T-1 and Queqiao where noted.

He leaves us with a few theories towards the end of the post, but this doesn’t seem like a good sign.

T+104: Jake Robins

Jake Robins of WeMartians joins me to talk InSight, Mars EDL, and Mars 2020.

This episode of Main Engine Cut Off is brought to you by 33 executive producers—Kris, Pat, Matt, Jorge, Brad, Ryan, Jamison, Nadim, Peter, Donald, Lee, Jasper, Chris, Warren, Bob, Russell, John, Moritz, Joel, Jan, David, Grant, Mike, David, Mints, Joonas, Robb, and six anonymous—and 203 other supporters on Patreon.

Thanks to November Patrons

Very special thanks to the 232 of you out there supporting Main Engine Cut Off on Patreon for the month of November. MECO is entirely listener- and reader-supported, so your support keeps this blog and podcast going, growing, and improving, and most importantly, it keeps it independent.

And a huge thanks to the 34 executive producers of Main Engine Cut Off: Kris, Pat, Matt, Jorge, Brad, Ryan, Jamison, Nadim, Peter, Donald, Lee, Jasper, Chris, Warren, Bob, Russell, John, Moritz, Joel, Jan, David, Grant, Mike, David, Mints, Joonas, Robb, and seven anonymous executive producers. I could not do this without your support, and I am extremely grateful for it.

There are some great perks for those supporting on Patreon, too. At $3 a month, you get access to the MECO Headlines podcast feed—every Friday, I run through the headlines of the week and discuss the stories that didn’t make it into the main show. And at $5 a month, you’ll get advance notice of guest appearances with the ability to contribute questions and topics to the show, and you get access to the Off-Nominal Discord—a place to hang out and discuss all things space.

We’re also getting pretty close to a goal I’ve had listen on Patreon for a while—at $1,000 a month, I’m planning on starting to stream shows and special events live!

If you want to get in on some of those perks, help us reach the streaming goal, or if you’re getting some value out of what I do here and just want to send a little value back to help support Main Engine Cut Off, head over to Patreon and do it there.

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The Saga of Boeing, Global IP, and China

I absolutely abhor this headline—“China Maneuvers to Snag Top-Secret Boeing Satellite Technology,” as it makes it sound like there’s a satellite in space literally maneuvering to grab another—but this is an astonishing story from Brian Spegele and Kate O’Keeffe for the Wall Street Journal:

Workers at a Boeing Co. plant in Los Angeles are nearing completion of a new satellite, which uses restricted technology relied on by the U.S. military. It was ordered by a local startup that seeks to improve web access in Africa.

In reality, the satellite is being funded by Chinese state money, according to corporate records, court documents and people close to the project.

About $200 million flowed to the satellite project from a state-owned Chinese financial firm in a complex deal that used offshore companies to channel China’s money to Boeing.

Days before the August 2016 deadline for signing a manufacturing contract with Boeing, several new board members of Global IP arrived unexpectedly in Los Angeles. Led by a Chinese lawyer who represented China Orient, the state-owned asset manager, the directors demanded to be allowed to study the contract, according to the Global IP founders.

This story is so crazy that it nearly sounds like an entrapment scheme—not that something like that has happened before.

What a name for a startup that is allegedly being co-opted by the Chinese government to steal intellectual property, though! Global IP!

This is a pretty good piece of evidence to argue both for and against working with China in space: you can say they’re maliciously trying to steal information, or you can say that they’re clearly committed to getting this information and will always find someone to use toward that goal, so why not work with them to gain some soft power?

Inmarsat Signs On As First Commercial Customer for H3

Inmarsat, the world leader in global mobile satellite communications, has today announced that it has entered into an agreement with Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Ltd. (MHI) to be the first commercial customer to place an order for the new H3 launch vehicle. The maiden flight of H3 is scheduled for 2020 with Inmarsat planning to deploy the new launch vehicle after 2022.

The 2020/2021 New Launch Vehicle sales cycle continues—New Glenn, Ariane 6, and now H3 all have commercial customers. Still waiting on those first Vulcan and Omega contracts.